Influential Black Americans
24* (three way tie) Langston Hughes
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s more colorful and legendary figures, Langston Hughes managed to frame issues of African-American identity and pride in terms that seemed as much poetic as they were political. Though he contributed to both the NAACP’s The Crisis and the socialist magazine The Messenger, among other publications, falling in and out of various movements, Hughes’s politics, though decidedly pro-black, never overshadowed his strong individualism.
Very in tune with the rhythms and ways of black people, Hughes consistently saw the beauty of black life and culture and not just its problems. Creatively prolific, Hughes left volumes of works, ranging from poetry collections and children’s books to plays, novels and essays. Still, it’s poems like “Harlem, ” asking “what happens to a dream deferred?” and “Mother to Son, ” where a woman passes on her hopefulness, not her hardships, that still manage to captivate the public imagination so many decades later.
24* (three way tie) Charles Hamilton Houston
Obscure to most people, Charles Hamilton Houston was one of this nation’s greatest legal strategists. Sometimes referred to as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow, ” Houston, the son of a lawyer, masterminded the strategy to dismantle Jim Crow by actively testing the “separate by equal” doctrine in the courts. A mentor to Thurgood Marshall, whom he taught at the Howard School of Law, Houston himself studied at Harvard Law School, where he graduated cum laude and served on the Harvard Law Review.
Sickened by the Jim Crow military camps he was forced to endure as a soldier in World War I and equally disturbed by the tumultuous race riots that rocked the United States when he returned in 1919, Houston resolved to fight racial injustice. Leading the NAACP’s legal assault, Houston played a critical role in every Supreme Court case between 1930 and the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board decision.
24* (three way tie) Harry Belafonte
Dubbed the “King of Calypso, ” the New York-born Harry Belafonte celebrated his Caribbean roots to the top of the musical charts, scoring big with classics like “Day-O.” As an actor, his natural good looks played best in classics like Bright Road and Carmen Jones, where he had significant roles. Distinguishing himself most as a humanitarian and civil rights champion, Belafonte, who was mentored by Paul Robeson, has consistently used his artistic talents to support important causes.
A friend to Dr. King, Belafonte bailed him out of jail as well as supplemented his income. Lending his voice and celebrity status, Belafonte raised thousands to support the movement and even helped bankroll Freedom Summer. Blacklisting during the McCarthy era didn’t diminish his fire. As a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Belafonte paid special attention to African children in Senegal and Rwanda. And, even at his advanced age, he publicly criticized George W. Bush and the Iraq War when it was unpopular to do so.
23) Nat Turner
In the United States, there is no slave rebellion more famous than Nat Turner’s in 1831. Enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner was known as a religious man and was said to have prophetic visions. As early as 1828, Turner reportedly received instructions to “slay my enemies with their own weapons” but did not actively begin planning the rebellion until February 1831.
Although initially planned for July 4, Turner became ill. A later sign on August 13 prompted Turner to set August 21 as the new date. Beginning in the darkness of the morning, Turner and about 40 slaves began killing white people on sight. By the next day, the white community was in a state of panic. Eventually, most of Turner’s men were killed and he was captured, hung and skinned. At least 55 white people were killed but many more African Americans were murdered at will. After that, laws governing slaves became even more restrictive.
(Library of Congress)
22) Carter G. Woodson
Known as the “Father of Black History, ” Carter G. Woodson believed that documenting and sharing African American contributions was essential to cultivating positive self worth among African-Americans as well as garnering respect from other races. Woodson spearheaded the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 specifically to research the African-American past. The very next year, it began publishing The Journal of Negro History.
A prolific historian in his own right, Woodson wrote several books, including A Century of Negro Migration and The History of the Negro Church. Still, The Mis-Education of the Negro remains one of his most popular works. Of all his many contributions, Woodson’s decision to set aside the second week of February, which contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, to launch Negro History Week, now Black History Month, in 1926 is perhaps his most celebrated.
21) Mary McLeod Bethune
Her genuine desire to serve others always distinguished Mary McLeod Bethune. A dedicated educator, Bethune’s constant search for more money for African American educational needs prompted her to form powerful relationships with John D. Rockefeller as well as Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt. But Bethune, who founded her own school, now part of Bethune-Cookman College, did not separate education and politics.
Instead, she merged the two, leading voter registration drives as well as heading the National Association of Colored Women. She served as a member of FDR’s “Black Cabinet, ” taking a special interest in issues pertaining to minority youth. In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women. Helping black women secure leadership roles in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II was one of the organization’s earliest successes. At the United Nations founding in 1948, Bethune was the only black woman present and, the following year, she served as the US emissary at the induction of Liberia’s president.
20) John H. Johnson
It took a little time for John H. Johnson to tweak his publishing vision with Ebony and JET, which emphasized African American achievement and success, but once he did, their influence eclipsed all African-American publications. A primary chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement, the pages of Ebony and JET featured award-winning images of the 20th century’s most tumultuous social change not to mention captivating articles that dug deep into the issues critical to African-Americans.
JET’s 1955 images of the brutally murdered Emmett Till are often cited as the impetus that spurred many to fill the civil rights coffers as well as their membership and volunteer rolls. Recognizing his influence, the government invited Johnson to participate in missions to Russia and Poland as well as represent his country at the independence ceremonies of the Ivory Coast and Kenya. Johnson, who had several businesses, advocated one hundred percent African American ownership.